Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions brilliantly mixed social realism, spiritual affirmation

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Innervisions arrived on Aug. 3, 1973 amidst an almost-unfathomable run of important recordings from Stevie Wonder, but it may well be his best — if only because it delves so deeply into the failure of the 1960s, even while constructing a path out of that crushing disappointment.

The decade’s promise of peace, its promise of prosperity, its promise of racial justice must have seemed very far away to Wonder in 1973, yet he was steadfast in his faith, unwavering in his thrilling creative experimentation, and unflinching in his willingness to lay bare the challenges and remaining opportunities. Innervision didn’t just portray Stevie Wonder as visionary on its cover (in a striking painting by Efram Wolff), it proved that he, in fact, was — with all of the attendant sense of revelatory mystery that comes with that.

Through he couldn’t hide his sun-surface smile from leaking out at every turn — memorably reminding those who feel overburdened that “today’s not yesterday, and all things have an ending” during “Visions” — Wonder’s narratives never shy away from a tough-minded examination of life’s problems: From the scarring impact of drugs (in the album-opening “Too High”), to the stark choices left for those trying to traverse the urban landscape (“Living for the City”) to the adult world’s soul-killing hypocrisy (“He’s Misstra Know-It-All,” aimed at the Watergate-era White House, “Jesus Children of America”), the stingingly trenchant Innervisions pulls no punches.

In that lyrical sweep, one that brilliantly mixed frank social realism and this light-filled sense of spiritual affirmation, Stevie Wonder cannily mirrored the complexity of this world — both then, and I’m afraid, now.

Then, he went further, creating another one in song. His continuing solo experiments with the T.O.N.T.O synth, an instrument only just then gaining interest in the black community, created a new world for R&B with this album — and they were very much solo experiments. Seven of the nine songs here are played in their entirety by Stevie Wonder. That makes his clever blending of rock, soul, Latin, R&B, reggae and gospel styles all the more impressive.

A No. 4 hit in America, Innervisions would build upon the success of Talking Book, becoming Wonder’s second-consecutive chart-topper on Billboard’s R&B charts — and his first-ever Top 10 UK album. Three singles from the album were Billboard Top 10 pop hits, “Higher Ground (No. 4), “Living for the City” (No. 8) and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (No. 16), with the first two also topping the R&B charts. Stevie Wonder also had a Top 10 hit in Britain with “He’s a Misstra Know-It All.” Innervisions then helped Wonder to a trio of Grammys, claiming best R&B song for “Living for the City,” best engineered non-classic recording as well as album of the year.

[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: We dig deeper into key tracks from Stevie Wonder’s wondrous career — from “Living for the City” to “Sir Duke,” from “A Place in the Sun” to “As,” and others.]

There remains, through to the modern era, an intricacy and wonder in Stevie Wonder’s triumph, one that was both musical and artistic. Listening today, his Fender Rhodes leaps to the fore, his squealing harmonica skitters over the top, his daring arrangements billow out around the lyrics.

All of it sounds brand new again, and the message still resonates.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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